Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 3, 2014

Query Letter Pet Peeves - Agents Speak

By Chuck Sambuchino

Photo from WANA Commons

Photo from WANA Commons

Ready to send your book out and contact agents? The last thing you want to do is to rush that submission out the door and hurt your book’s chances.

When submitting your all-important query to agents or editors, it’s not just a question of what to write in the letter—it’s also a question of what not to write.

I asked 11 literary agents about their personal query letter pet peeves and compiled them below. Check out the list to learn all about what details to avoid in a query that could sink your submission—such as vague wording, too much personal information, grammatical mistakes, and much more.


“I think the biggest querying no-no I’ve ever seen was when an author tracked down some sensitive personal information and included it in their cover letter. Eeep! As agents we absolutely love when authors do their research and get to know our interests, but you want to always make sure what you include in your query letter is professional and that you don’t slip too far into the realm of the personal.

The biggest no-no I’ve seen recently probably would be authors whose query letters focus too much on their author bios and don’t tell me what their book is about! Make sure you put those essential story details up front.”

~ Shira Hoffman of McIntosh & Otis, Inc.
For more advice from Shira, click the link above.


“I’ve received queries for ‘Dear Editor,’ ‘Dear Agent,’ ‘Dear Publisher,’ as well as e-mail queries that are addressed to 10 different agents together.”

~ Jacquie Flynn of Joelle Delbourgo Associates
For more advice from Jacquie, click the link above click.


“Spelling errors or grammatical mistakes. They just make me want to stop reading.”

~ Lisa Leshne of LJK Literary Management
For more advice from Lisa, click the link above.


“Unfocused queries and the term ‘fiction novel.’ ”

~ Melissa Flashman of Trident Media Group, LLC
For more advice from Melissa, click the link above.


“I’m sick of vagueness. I get so many queries every day that don’t tell me enough about the novel. If there’s no reason for me to say yes, then it’s going to be no.”

~ Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc.
For more advice from Bridget, click the link above.


“[Just recently], somebody queried me with a YA fantasy—and in the place where they should have put their professional bio or a few sentences about themselves, they had taken on the persona of their main character and said something about the character instead … Queries are business letters. Agenting is a business. Publishing is a business. I try to be nice and friendly and funny and all, but the bottom line is that I expect those with whom I work to be professional and take what they’re doing seriously.”

~ Linda Epstein of Jennifer De Chiara Literary
For more advice from Linda, click the link above.


(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)


“I do encourage all writers to treat their query as a job interview. Be professional. Be concise. Here’s a quick heads up on what you probably do not want to say:

Hello Agent (or insert wrong/misspelled name),

I have written an absolute masterpiece. It is a 200k word epic, romance, historical, sci-fi YA mystery. It’s my first book and I took ten years to write it. It’s comparable to (insert NYT Bestseller’s name). I don’t have any writing experience, but my (insert husband/wife/mom/BFF) said it’s the best thing he/she ever read. I already attached it. So take a look and answer me right away.

“Don’t laugh. I receive a lot of these. And a few have turned out to be great stories simply in need of a little editing. Most, however, are projects that are not ready for submission. I’m going to be totally honest here and admit that statements like the above (or any combination therein) form a negative impression in my mind. I want a professional, prolific client who knows their craft and understands the market. Don’t lie in your query, but always put your best face forward.”

~ Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour Agency
For more advice from Nicole, click the link above.


“I have several query pet peeves:

  1. When my name is spelled incorrectly.
  2. When a query begins with a ‘what would you do’ question—like, ‘What would you do if you came home and found a wooly mammoth eating your daffodils?’
  3. Anything that tells me the writer is a hobbyist and not serious about making it as a professional writer.
  4. When there are multiple typos and grammatical errors—one or two I can forgive, anything more than that and I start to question how polished the manuscript would be if I requested it.
  5. When pertinent information is left out of a query—such as era for a historical, or whether the book is nonfiction or fiction (though, usually if I can’t ascertain that on my own from the query, there are other problems).
  6. When a writer tells me his work is ‘the greatest, the best, the most amazing, the next blockbuster’—let me judge that for myself, please.”

~ Jessica Alvarez of BookEnds, LLC
For more advice from Jessica, click the link above.


[On nonfiction queries specifically:]

“First, not having a good grasp of the competition. An author needs to know the category inside and out and be able to explain how his book fits in. I always get a sinking feeling in my stomach when I find similar books that the author didn’t know about.

Second, dull chapter summaries. Often the sample material is great, but the summaries are boring or vague. It’s so important that chapter summaries be compelling and convey the energy and depth of unique information that will be in the book. They have to make an editor want to read more.

Third, a marketing section that simply says the book ‘will appeal to everyone!’ That’s never true, and it doesn’t help publishers figure out how to position and sell your book. An author needs to understand who her audience is and how to reach them.”

~ Laurie Abkemeier of DeFiore and Company
For more advice from Laurie, click the link above.


[On nonfiction queries specifically:] “I think a pitfall that hopeful nonfiction writers can fall into all too easily is including in a query everything they hope might happen with their book. I see too many queries that claim that the book is ‘a perfect fit for publicity on Television Show X.’ What I want to see in a query for nonfiction is a clear and feasible plan for how the author can help utilize connections and an already established platform to aid the publisher’s efforts.”

~ Faye Bender of the Faye Bender Literary Agency
For more advice from Faye, click the link above.


“I’m not fond of being called ‘Sir.’ But really, I just want to know what the manuscript is about without having to put a huge amount of effort into figuring it out. It shouldn’t be an Easter egg hunt for the plot line.”

~ Bree Ogden of D4EO Literary
For more advice from Bree, click the link above.


About Chuck

Chuck FW head shotChuck Sambuchino of Writer's Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.

His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM

Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.

Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook.

photo credit: Fernando X. Sanchez via photopin cc(same bio)

32 comments on “Query Letter Pet Peeves - Agents Speak”

  1. As much as they all claim to dislike dear agent, you think they'd be a little more sensitive about sending out dear author rejections. I mean, the info is right there.

  2. I don't think I've done most of these, but didn't realize I should put the era of the Historical Fiction, yea, for new insights. I also didn't think to add other projects to show that I am prolific, never thought of that. Thank you, off to edit my query. Great compilation of advice.

  3. This is good information. I appreciate the agen'ts willingness to share. However, I have some comments (complaints?)
    First, I've contacted many agents who never reply. Why? Who knows? The agent doesn't have to tell me why. Just say, "No."
    Second, agents can be vague. For instance, "looking for a strong voice..." Now, is a "strong voice" one that tells a story that the agent likes, or is a "strong voice" a way to say that the agent didn't like the story? "Strong voice" should be defined up front by each agent, or drop the jargon. Finally, agents are gatekeepers of the golden treasure: publication. However, they're neither the publisher nor the writer. The gatekeeper is as beholding to the writer as they are the publisher. Agents might ask themselves, "Whom do I most envy? The writer, or the publisher?" Having discovered an answer, the agents should lean over backwards to help the one they least envy.

    1. Agents get far too many submissions to reply to each one. Usually their website will tell you how long it takes them to get through submissions. It can take weeks or months.
      If something can be read easily aloud, it has a "strong voice." Have you ever noticed that if you read something written by a friend or celebrity, you can almost hear the words in their voice? It's like that. Publishing is full of jargon. If you want to be published, you need to learn the vocabulary. Writing classes and books on the craft of writing are full of definitions. And then there's Google.
      Agents shouldn't lean over backwards to help anyone that isn't going to make them money. Sounds heartless perhaps, but they need to make a living for themselves. They aren't teachers, and they won't coddle writers that aren't already their clients. If you want to be helped, don't look for an agent, whose focus is marketing. Look for a writing teacher or a freelance editor to get you to the point where you can be marketable.
      If you cannot afford a freelance editor or a [high quality] writing class, then find the Query Shark blog and read every single post on it.

  4. Thanks for this valuable service. These all seemed sort of self-evident to me....and made me feel really sympathetic to agents. Yikes. I always thought that would be a job where you're surrounded by professionally erudite. Apparently, no.

  5. It's interesting to read the pet peeves of different agents, but....through the years I've found what one agent likes the other detests! So, who knows, who likes what? Seems like a crap shoot to me!

  6. Great advice! I'm getting ready to revise a couple of books that are in critique and will probably be querying again later in the year. It's good to have these tips in mind.

  7. Oh, these are great. I realize they may seem basic to a lot of people, but it can be so scary to send out a query that some common sense can fly out the window, unfortunately. Thank you for this post!

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